Can we contain viral misinformation about coronavirus?

9th April, 2020

Is there anything we can do to contain the spread? I’m not talking about coronavirus. I’m talking about the misinformation.

The UK’s Daily Express has suggested that the World Health Organization has long known about the disease known as Covid-19. (It hasn’t: it just talked about a hypothetical pandemic scenario involving an equally hypothetical Disease X.) Other newspapers asked if satellite images showed mass cremations of Covid-19 victims. (No.)

In Kenya, audio from a training exercise was widely shared on WhatsApp, leading people to confuse the simulation with reality. Everywhere, social media posts peddle snake oil and trade in conspiracy theories.

A popular Facebook image shows that Dettol’s label claims to kill coronavirus and asks, were they forewarned? Maybe — although it would be quite the bioweapon conspiracy if a bunch of incompetent label designers were in the loop. A more plausible explanation is that “coronavirus” also applies to the viruses that cause Mers, Sars and indeed some varieties of the common cold.

It is important not to exaggerate the reach of such stories but they are too popular for comfort. They are smeared around the information ecosystem by a combination of fear, a mistaken desire to help, the gossip instinct and, perhaps most important, a belief that official sources aren’t telling us the truth.

A few weeks ago, for example, a reader wrote to me: “Whilst the ‘official’ death rate for the coronavirus is repeatedly stated in the media as being 2 per cent, I believe this is a false statistic . . . the real death rate is somewhere between 6 per cent and 18 per cent. IT IS CERTAINLY NOT 2 per cent!” He even added a spreadsheet.

My instinctive reaction was the opposite of those spreading the misinformation: that if the death rate was that high, we’d know about it. And indeed, when I spoke to epidemiologist Nathalie MacDermott of King’s College London, she reassured me that my reader’s otherwise-rigorous spreadsheet had missed a detail which explained his alarming conclusion: some cases are so mild that they never reach the notice of medical professionals.

What stuck with me was an intelligent reader’s mistrust of the “official” number. The Chinese authorities may well have reasons to fear the truth, but there is no reason to believe international experts are engaged in a cover-up. Experts can be corrupt or mistaken, and sometimes one must look behind a curtain of official denial. Yet in technical matters such as the danger of Covid-19, an epidemiologist is far more likely to be right than our untutored intuitions.

There are plenty of paranoid conspiracies about Covid-19 circulating on social media — check the website of Full Fact, a UK-based fact-checking organisation, for a selection. They are just a small sample of the falsehoods circulating on all topics. Sometimes they are an attempt to get clicks and thus revenue; sometimes it is deliberate disinformation designed to skew political debate or drown out the truth; sometimes untrue ideas are just catchy. Can we contain all this misinformation any more than we are containing the new coronavirus?

The theory that ideas spread, mutate and evolve much like a living organism — or a virus — was popularised by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who in 1976 coined the word “meme” as an analogue to “gene”. The possibility of ideas “going viral” was radical in the 1970s. Now it is a cliché — but it is still instructive.

The sudden interest in the disease, for example, has given new life to dormant posts promoting herbal cures for coronaviruses. Strange ideas mutate and multiply in their own niches, such as social media groups favouring vaccine conspiracies or the idea that mobile phones make you sick. Such groups are inclined to disbelieve the official version of anything.

It is tempting to dream that a grand plan can contain both problems. We hope a new law, or a change in Facebook’s algorithm, will dispel lies — just as we hope that Covid-19 can be foiled by quarantine (ideally of other people) or by the miraculous appearance of a working vaccine.

Such top-down moves can help. A society with strong health services is in a better position to face a pandemic; similarly we can strengthen our institutions against misinformation. Facebook announced this week that it will be “removing false claims and conspiracy theories” — late in the day. But the company has long worked with fact-checkers such as Full Fact to flag false stories.

Yet ultimately, a resilient society needs to practice some bottom-up hygiene, if that is not an unfortunate phrase. To deal with a virus, we should wash our hands and try not to touch our faces. Similarly, the strongest defences against misinformation are people less given to paranoia and to sharing ideas without thinking. We should all stop and reflect before circulating alarming claims. Count to 10, and ask yourself whether this is really the best thing to amplify. Whether fighting a virus, or a viral scare story, each one of us needs to erect small barriers to slow the contagion. Alone, those barriers may seem trivial. Collectively, they work.

Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 06 March 2020.

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